Friday, May 14, 2010

Lessons Learned from Pine

I've landed back in the States. "Home", as it were, though any sense of place continues to hang in ambiguity. Back in the real world, I am desperate to remember what I've learned about leaning on grace and holding peace in all circumstances. Going far away for a fresh perspective was crucial, but I am reminded that the circumstances I face are nearer and stronger at home. I am challenged to hold on to this perspective and continue to allow it to unfold as I look adversity in the eyes.

This morning, I was reminded of a poem I wrote a year ago - at the very beginning of this journey. I sat outside of my tent after a night of camping in the snow and found myself meditating on a single pine tree, contemplating its existence and resilience. Somehow, remembering it this morning has restored hope and strength in my heart. I am realizing how many of the tree's secrets that have already been revealed to me in just one year...how I am being formed and shaped to be more and more like a pine tree.

The Tree
Jaimi Kercher | March, 2009

Firm
It stands in solidarity
Weathered
But unwavering
Strong
Yet agile
To accommodate the slightest breeze
To the brute force of a winter snowstorm

Silent
Seemingly unaffected
Constant
Yet ever changing
Inanimate
Yet full of life
Adapting to the needs of seasons
Acknowledging the importance of change

Being
Unaware of self
Of individualism
Yet aware of its ecosystem
Delicate
And essential
To all things in perfect balance
To the chaos that ultimately becomes truth

Relentless
Ignorant in choice
Unfaltering
And ever-growing
Evergreen
With burden and without
Incognizant of its ability to fail
Therefore unscathed by the fear of failure

O, to be a tree
To be firmly rooted in the soil of the earth
To persevere without fear
To endure without doubt
And to exhibit life even in the most treacherous of conditions
      In Faith
          In Trust
              In Love
                  In Confidence

That must be God’s wish for us all

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Movement, Perfectionism, and other Reflections from Kenya

On Sunday, I shared an 8-hour, nail biting bus trip from Amboseli National Park back to Mombasa in Kenya with a new friend, Brian McLaren. Brian is a pastor and author of many books that are controversial in many Christian communities. Most notably, in my head, he is the author of the book "Everything Must Change", which subsequently changed everything for me (no pun intended).

We were part of a group of seven other participants from the Amahoro Gathering who had gone on Safari as an extension of the conversation around Christ, Community and Creation. All but Brian and I had flights to catch from Mombasa to Nairobi on Sunday, and when those in the group realized they were so close to Nairobi already they made arrangements to skip the 8 hour drive back to Mombasa and share a bus that would take them directly to the Nairobi airport.

I don't believe that the trip back to Mombasa with just Brian and I was by coincidence. Here was someone I deeply admire for helping me come to a perception of Jesus that is more aligned with my interpretation of a benevolent and just God. Yet, I've been somewhat intimidated by him, failing completely to introduce myself or talk to him in South Africa last year. I certainly wouldn't dare to discuss theology or ask questions in front of the pastors, bible scholars, and theologians dominating the Amahoro Gathering. But, with just the two of us and 8 hours on the road, I felt more than comfortable asking "stupid" questions.

Brian said a lot of thought-provoking and interesting things. But I am still processing and deeply moved by his idea that God's perfectionism isn't ecstatic, it is dynamic. I love this concept in that it leaves plenty of room to grow and continually discover. Even as I write this I am realizing its alignment with my suspicion that absolute truth is actually nonexistent. Just as every day new species are documented on land and in the sea, there are infinite truths yet to be unfolded in mankind's journey on Earth. I think this is a concept even an atheist can relate to. Who can deny that each day there is something new to be experienced, discovered, and learned?

For a perfectionist, I cannot tell you how freeing this concept of dynamism is. It completely changes my perception of what it means to be perfect. It means perfection is not something to be achieved, but is happening around me every day...iteratively...dynamically. It means I can let go of the concept of euphoria - the expectation that I would reach ecstatic contentment once everything is "perfect". God's world is ever-changing, ever-moving, and ever-growing. To expect absolute operates against the organic and dynamic nature of creation.

My only question, then, is why our little human brains are programmed to think in terms of finite. Why do we seek out euphoria (ecstasy) instead of receiving the peace presently available to us in all circumstances? This mystery of the human psyche is why advertising is so effective. "Buy this and your joy will be complete." We want to be in that rocking chair - in flannel pajamas, next to a roaring fire on a snowy day, our golden retriever napping at our feet - because, in that image, we've reached ecstatic perfection. If I could only find myself in that scene, my troubles would melt away. My circumstances, my history, my identity - none of these things matter in those flannel pajamas. How can we believe such a lie? I cannot even begin to comprehend the way we are wired.


A little fun on our way out of Amboseli National Park.

--

Monday was an incredible day. After a dive, a drink at the swim-up bar, snorkeling, and conversation with more friends I found myself laying in the sun watching the low clouds roll over the Indian Ocean. In that moment, I realized I had never felt so close to God. I have a Facebook friend, Jed, who sometimes updates his status with "Gone soul searching...in a place so close to God you can almost look him in the eyes". That's what it felt like. I found "euphoria" in the form of gentle peace. It was held in balance with my joy and grief (which has continued to be present during this trip). But, in that moment, I was overcome with the freedom to relinquish all control over my circumstances.

God is at work. Always moving, always shaping, always with purpose. He is working in my life, still sculpting and carefully examining and using every imperfection in my clay. And he is at work in the lives of the people I love and mourn for...in a way that I cannot even begin to understand but can only be positive of the movement and shaping in those lives as well. He has a plan and a purpose laid out for everyone, and while I may or may not get to be a part of them, I find great comfort in knowing this when I take the time to fully acknowledge and consider it.

And I am positive God is working on the reconciliation, healing, and closure I so desperately am seeking in this time of transition. I only find weakness when I attempt to guess or make assumptions about what that looks like. I get distracted by needing to know, and become overwhelmed with the onset of that obsession. But, I am learning to hold all things in peaceful ambiguity, absent of the expectation of "needing" to know. But, to be honest, there are only brief moments when I can comfortably hang in that balance. The rest of the time I am aware of my weakness in humanity. It gets even more complicated when I realize the importance of receiving grace when I become aware of my weaknesses.

What a blessing Kenya has been to me -- so many gifts from God, even in the midst of such turbulent emotions. I have held grief with joy, tears with laughter, and resentment with forgiveness in such a dynamic dance these last 10 days. I am living out an awareness of "...the fullness of him who fills everything in every way" (Ephesians 1:23). The dynamism of life...a pot continuously sculpted but never fired...a work made perfect in its constant incompleteness.

Though my trip to Kenya is drawing to a close, this journey is far from over. God grant me the strength and wisdom to receive peace in ambiguity and to be intentional and present in all circumstances.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Drina

This morning my host, Martin, and driver, Ali, met me at the Mombasa Continental Resort to begin our 2 hour journey (38 kilometers on rough and busy roads) to Kambe. On our way out of town, Martin brought me into a supermarket where we purchased a "food basket" as he called it (though it was a whole lot of food with no basket). After our purchase of rice, sugar, cooking oil, laundry and personal soap, maize flour, and a packet of candy, we drove out of Mombasa and ascended a very bumpy road up to the countryside.

I had applied for this visit back in February, which currently feels like an age ago. There really was no hemming or hawing - no decision to be made. I knew I was going to be in Mombasa and when Drina wrote to me last fall and mentioned her visit to an aunt in Mombasa there was no doubt that my presence here was no coincidence. I can think back now to when the representative from Compassion International came into our church and laid out about a hundred child sponsorship cards on the table from all over the world. I felt moved to become a sponsor, and I remember studying those cards one by one trying to figure out how one decides between all those children. But Drina stood out for me, inexplicably. As I skimmed the cards on the table my eyes kept falling back on her, so I picked it up and filled out the form and the rest is history.

I had no idea at that point, two years ago now, the journey I would find myself on today. How could I know that I would be called to quit my job a year later and my heart would be drawn to Africa? I never could have guessed that my call to Africa would land me at Amahoro Africa in South Africa in 2009, without even fully understanding what this gathering of friends, African leaders, and lovers of the mercy and justice of Jesus was all about. I didn't know, at the time I chose Drina, that I would find myself with a permanent attachment to Africa, and that the Amahoro Gathering would be held just 38 Kilometers from her home in 2010.

Can you listen to this and deny that something divine is in motion here?

So today, I arrived at a small church and school house in Kambe, where I was met by a littlegirl in a beautiful flowered dress that I recognized as 9-year old Drina. The paperwork I received from the field office warned about proper etiquette in terms of showing affection, but I instantly forgot when I saw her, drawing her near to me in a big hug (much to her surprise, I might add). She was accompanied by her mother in a turquoise dress, both ladies smiling and welcoming as they walked me into the office. There, I was met by the Pastor and the team that is leading the project in Kambe - the accountant, health worker, social worker, and so on. For the first hour they shared with me the specifics of the project - where my money has been going and the affect they've had on that particular community in terms of health, education, spiritual encouragement, and economic responsibility. This was, perhaps, a room full of some of the most passionate (and compassionate) people I have ever met.

After the business introduction to the project, we drove to Drina's home (where she lives with her Mother and sister). Drina carried my camera bag into her home (she wanted to help me), and walked me through the rooms of the temporary structure made of dried mud and wooden scaffolding. A chicken meandered by as I photographed the family in Drina and Sharon's bedroom, and I stepped awkardly on the rough, dirt floors of that 3 bedroom (probably 300 square feet) structure. Afterwards, Drina and Sharon took me outside to show me the goat my birthday money had purchased for Drina last year. I gave him a good pat on the head, amazed that I was experiencing first hand the fruits of a measly $25 check.

Drina and I talked - she told me how she likes to play and that her favorite game is football (soccer). She enjoys English as her favorite subject in school, and her marks are fairly good (she is in the 80th percentile). She is very shy, and when I asked her a question directly she would answer in a very low whisper that I never was able to discern. Soon, we discovered she was much more willing to answer in her native tongue of Swahili and the two of us enjoyed more conversation via the translation of my host Martin.

Mostly, though, Drina held on to my camera. I had set it up for her to use as simply as possible, and she snapped away hundreds of photographs while we met in her home. When she grows up she wants to be a police woman or a doctor...but now we all suspect she may want to be a journalist! She was very proud of her photographs, and so smart! She figured out how to play them back and would occasionally stop photographing to run me through the latest "slide show" of her work.

I am not one of those people who is good with words. I never know what to say, especially to someone who lives in such a completely different world than me. But, what I can do, is share in the international language of passion. My passion is photography...it's storytelling. I had two cameras there, and Drina and I bonded over our individual photographic perspectives of our story together. It was moving.

I brought many gifts (probably too many), and one was a stack of photographs I had put together of close family and friends. I was amazed by her memory (and that of her sister's). As I began to lay out the photographs, the girls exclaimed together "Kako!" when they saw the photograph of my aunt Kako. Then, they saw the picture of my mom and brother and giggled as they said "Casey", making it evident that they felt a kinship not only with me but with my family. If there is anything I've learned it is I need to send more photos! There are so many important people in my life, and they were happy today to meet the rest of the family (Dad, Jolene, Linda, Bart, the cousins and kids), as well as some close friends (Kelly, Jen, and the Santa Barbara crew on our recent snowshoeing trip in Mammoth). In return, I was given a gift of beautiful fabrics and a hand-woven shopping basket, which I will cherish always! I also have come back to my hotel with two coconuts and a bag of sweet oranges that I am so disappointed cannot accompany me on my journey back to the U.S. tomorrow.

As their mother shared photographs with me of Drina and Sharon as children, Drina undid my braid and she and her sister played with my hair. We ate together in that home, a meal of rice and chicken in coconut milk (delicious, by the way!) Every once in a while I would catch Drina looking at me, and every once in a while she would catch me looking at her. We were bonded by our curiosity of each other.

I was sad our time together had to come to an end. What could I say to Drina and her family? Could I hug her long enough and hard enough to feel fulfilled in letting her know what a blessing she is to me? How can I love her more? I wanted to stay there with them on their new plot of land. I wanted to help the family build a permanent structure and harvest the maize they had planted. How does anyone just walk away from that? And, let me tell you, though there is clearly poverty, I am talking about how one walks away from the hope in the midst of that poverty. I can't see past the shy smile on Drina's face, the way their mother adores her children and wants only the best, and how they are supported in a community where they are loved by so many. I get to love them, too...it just seems unfair its from so far away!

As a child, my family sponsored a little boy in Ethiopia named Vincent. I remember writing Vincent letters and passing his photograph in the hallway of our home. Somehow, though, I was disconnected from Vincent. The same way I've been disconnected from Drina these last two years. But Drina is real, Vincent is real (I wonder where Vincent is these days). Drina will always, always hold a special place in my heart. I will carry her smile, gentle kindness, and somewhat silly demeanor with me always.

What a touching, yet surreal experience...


Looking at Drina's file with the social worker.


Lovely Drina.


On the path to her house.


The family in the room Drina shares with her sister Sharon.


Drina's Kitchen.


My birthday goat!


One of Drina's photos. Pretty good if you ask me!


Looking at photos of my family and friends.


My gifts.


Toothbrush holder (there is no bathroom and no sink).


Drina and I, as photographed by Drina.


Self Portrait.


Lunch as prepared by Mama (I didn't write down her name, but I'll get it. Sorry Mama!!).


Drina in front of her home.


On our way back to the car.


Drina and I at our final goodbye.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Correlating Conservation and Social Justice

Today our speaker, Colin Jackson, energetically and thoughtfully described the importance of environmental preservation in the fight against social injustice. I imagine it is a controversial topic to bring to the table in a room full of people who are faced with enormous social issues every day, like poverty, violence and HIV/AIDS. How can people in these circumstances even fathom concepts of environmental responsibility when they are blinded by the basic needs of hunger, safety, and health? It's the typical "forest through the trees" scenario, and Colin suggests that tending to our environmental responsibilities actually tackles many social issues from the top-down.

I remember thinking about this last year in Burundi as we drove by pile after pile of trash (mostly consisting of plastic bottles) and witnessed the drastic change in the color of the waters where the streams flowing from Bujumbura meet Lake Tanganyika. As someone who has grown to become quite conscious and intentional when it comes to recycling (and, specifically the use of plastic bottles), every bottle of water I consumed in Burundi broke my heart because I was well-aware of where it would end up. But, at the time, I felt the same sort of apathy towards environmental responsibility in a country that faces so much poverty and an intense history of violence. Hearing Colin speak this morning has rerouted that thinking...it has opened my eyes to the idea of looking at all crises as a whole - swirling social, environmental and political issues in one glass to gain a better understanding of how these issues are intertwined and feed into and out of one another.

Colin is alive with passion for his cause, and it is a passion I deeply connect with. I have walked away energetic and affirmed by my particular connection with nature. I didn't realize it until this morning, but I think I have been struggling with the concept of "service to others" for several years, and particularly for the last year since I stepped into this journey. I felt called into the battle of social responsibility and fighting injustices, but I am a fairly anti-social person. I have dabbled in humanitarian efforts, finding some fruits but not finding place. But, I so identified with Colin's passion this morning that my eyes have been opened to a new path to explore in this journey...a path I've already been on but hadn't ever thought of connecting environmental responsibility to social responsibility. It never even occurred to me to consider that these things are, actually, one in the same.

After Colin spoke, we mingled around tea and snacks. A woman I had met yesterday morning, Eunice, had asked me last night if she could look at some of my photographs, so I had brought one of my calendars into the conference room to give to her. It seemed like a simple gift to me - one I've given hundreds of times to friends in the US and have always been met with a smile, a thank you, and a "nice job"! But I didn't anticipate the look on Eunice's face when I handed it to her.

She held it in her hand and I sat next to her as she was comprehending that this calendar was not only the photographs of mine she had asked to see, but a gift for her to keep. We sat together as she tore open the shrink wrap, touching the cover and flipping it over with the same sort of awe. Then, month-by-month, she intentionally and carefully turned the pages, staring in wonder at the images and asking questions about every one. We sat there for at least 20 minutes, and by the time we got to May I began to anticipate her questions. With every page she turned I had the opportunity to share some wonders of nature with Eunice - like how the rocks in Sedona are red because of the iron in their chemical makeup, and how the Rocky Mountains divide the center of my country, and how the rivers flow in opposite directions from the Continental Divide. When she flipped to December (my favorite photograph in the Calendar of Bryce Canyon National Park), I was describing the makeup and fragility of the Hutus (rock formations) in the canyon. I explained that the landscape had come to be due to years of weathering by the elements.

"So, this was not sculpted by someone?" she asked. I started to repeat what I had just said about the weathering and stopped short when I looked in her eyes.

"Well, it was sculpted by God!" I replied. With that, she broke out into a laughter together with her friend who had joined us and was looking on. Later, Eunice would also inform me that she loves calendars and collects them at every chance she gets. I am touched and moved by her gratitude for a gesture that was so simple in my mind when I had the thought to give it to her.

If you know me and have ever owned one of my calendars, you will know that I have always explained that my passion and purpose for photography is to bring the outside world to others who would otherwise not know it. I walked away from my conversation with Eunice purely energized...it was in exact sync with my intention as a photographer. Exploring those sights together with Eunice was like a dream come true.

All this to say that I am opening my heart to learning more about how my passions are actually connected to the God's plan in his kingdom. I am realizing I don't have to come up with new passions to connect more intentionally and completely to humankind in a way that can truly make a difference.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Questioning Hope

"If you would be a real seeker of truth, it is necessary at least once in your life to doubt all things."
~René Descartes

As was true in my visit to Africa last year, I am finding myself challenged in my theology. I look around the room and see hundreds of faithful believers confident in the biblical message of a God that loves and desires peace and salvation. Here, God is truth and the only light and way towards a brighter tomorrow. But, being overwhelmed by the ongoing issues that are raised and the violence and grief that ravages this continent, I can't help but hold doubt of that concept.

But, when I attempt to break free from a particular theology or ideology, I am still left with the irrefutable passion for social responsibility. Whether on a path lead by the scriptures or with a secular heart that desires global transformation for greater responsibility, one cannot escape the resulting awareness of brokenness in the world and of individuals around us. Holding these realities alongside my own grief is proving to be very difficult for me today. I can't avoid the temptation to compare and contrast, to feel guilty in my grief because it is so small in comparison to the horrors that many cultures - especially African cultures - experience every day.

To commit yourself to social responsibility is to open yourself up to the weight of the world. In seeking out justice, truth, and peace one becomes immediately aware of the ubiquitous injustices, lies, and violence that plague this planet. The choice becomes continuing on out of hope and faith, or giving up and returning to our isolated lives which are "just fine". In moments of weakness, for whatever the cause, it is so tempting to surrender to that isolation. I've thought of this recently in my own struggles, feeling sometimes like it was so much easier to live the lie. But, once truth has been revealed and your eyes have been opened to these things, I've learned its impossible to reverse the impact and squeeze back into the mindset of before. The realities of this world and my impact will always be in the forefront of my mind.

And so, even in my weakness, I have to choose hope and faith over isolation and remorse. It's the only mechanism by which I can move forward and continue to strive for something greater. I find myself at a crossroads, a particular decision point in which my choices have been reduced to faith or freeze. And, I simply can't freeze. I've come too far and endured too much.

So, as I look around at those who appear strong-hearted in their faith, I can't help but wonder if perhaps it is the same decision-point that carries their momentum. I can't help but wonder, in their own personal times of weakness when they are overcome by the grief they face, if they sometimes question the presence of God in the midst of it. We're all human, so I suspect the question lingers for all of us. But, I also suspect that it is that question which drives the answers.

I actually believe this is what it means to be a seeker of truth...to constantly hold these questions in careful balance and accepting the confirmations -- and the fallacies -- we face along the way.

The Breakdown of Self Preservation

I am back in Africa, and back for my second year at the Amahoro Africa Gathering. This year, a conversation is taking place on Christ, Creation, and Community.

One of the things that struck me as Dennis Tongoi spoke this morning is a theme I had already been contemplating -- the idea that God so loves the world. It has dawned on me that this concept may be very difficult to fully grasp and comprehend in contrast to a general biblical perspective that the "world" is evil. The idea that the world is evil is perhaps at the foundation of why many Christians focus their eyes on death (bliss in heaven) instead of life (consumed by sin). But there it is, in the most famous of all scriptures, God loves the world we live in...in the present...today.

We are also made aware for God's love for all things, a phrase repeated countless times in the scriptures. Dennis suggested that we tend to live out our faith with the intention of personal gain. If I follow my faith, God will give me the desires of my heart. If I serve the poor, I will earn God's favor and blessing. If I save more souls, my rewards will be stored up for me in heaven. He called this "Photo Album Faith" - like having a group photo taken and immediately seeking yourself out in the image when you get the proofs. But, the photo was never about you, it was about the group and the circumstances that brought you together. God's love is carefully weaved among all things - every man, woman, child, tree, cloud, and all elements of creation in that photograph. Each individual, while loved intimately by God, also serves an ultimate purpose in his or her community and in the world.

I have had many conversations around the philosophy that all things humans do or say is always motivated by self-gain. Even as we serve the poor, contribute financially to various causes, or help a coworker thrive in their career, the end result is that we feel good about ourselves. For many Christians, saving souls or simply sharing the gospel is done on the premise of some pending reward in the afterlife. In my personal story, undertaking difficult and radical change was only made possible by the expectation that it will ultimately lead to a richer, more satisfying life.

I don't know of any way to deny this theory of self-motivation. What I do know, however, is that we should not use that theory as a way to rationalize actions that will hurt ourselves or others more than they will help. We cannot focus on or give into self-motivation as a means to justify actions we are called to take but don't really want to. Even if we are aware of our personal gain in any situation, we should never allow it to distract our true intention and desire to act out of selflessness and care for others.

We have a responsibility to our communities and all of creation...to make the right decisions at work, in our relationships, and in our family. Caring for one another is the ultimate measure of self-satisfaction. If joy is brought to me through witnessing the joy in others - especially if I helped them to seek and find that joy - then it is win-win.

My challenge in this is to step outside the preservation of self and make intentional choices that consider all things in my environment and community. Because the fruition of God's plan is dependent on community, I cannot succumb to isolation in search of healing. My present struggles are marked with a need for community -- not only to allow others to walk with me in my grief but to intentionally and proactively walk beside and encourage others despite my grief. I suspect the latter is of the utmost importance.